The controversial debate of standardized testing is not a new one. Standardized testing was introduced in the United States in the early 1900s, and immediately the conversation began of what to use it for and how much emphasis to put on it. At this point, we are no strangers to standardized testing. We grew up taking our state assessments, then when it came time to start applying to colleges, many of us were required to take the SATs. Anyone pursuing graduate school may now have to take the GRE, MCAT, LSAT, or some other standardized test. The question many are asking is: why? Why do we put so much emphasis on one test? How much does this one score actually account for? To answer these questions, we need to look back at past legislatures.
In 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush. Establishing this law was intended to increase the performance of all students, but particularly minority students. The law was intended to best suit students in poverty, students of color, students in special education, and students who are English language learners. This act affected both elementary and secondary schools. Curriculum was significantly changed as a result of this law. In addition, federal regulation of schools increased exponentially in the United States. Standardized tests became required to demonstrate whether states were able to make progress in having all students meet the “proficient” level in academics. This law also raised the standards required for teacher certification, which ensured that teachers in the classroom were highly qualified.
From the outside, this law seemed like a great solution to the education problems our country faces. However, this actually did nothing to help close the education gap. More pressure was put on teachers to produce higher test scores, as these standardized tests were used to evaluate not just the students, but their teachers, their schools, and their states. Many schools have started teaching to the test to achieve high enough scores to prevent teachers from getting fired or entire schools from closing down. This means that teachers drop other important content areas and instead start teaching students to memorize what they need to pass these standardized tests. When teachers teach just to test, students miss out on the passion and creativity of being learners. Non-educators think this is a price worth paying if it means that the education gap is closed and students perform well on standardized tests, showing an adequate portrayal of where they are in their learning.
Even with all this sacrifice, this belief is false. The education gap never closed from the NCLB Act, nor did it close with any of the other numerous education reforms put in place. There is still an education gap for minority students and students in poverty. Naturally, pressure has always been placed on the teachers to fix this gaping problem in education. However, there is only so much that can be done during the school day, and system-wide changes need to be enacted at the community level to properly help these students.
Another argument made by supporters of the current system is that, even though these tests may not benefit all students, they still help to show what level a student is working at and predict their future success. This idea is also incorrect. Students spend approximately 28 percent of instructional time preparing for testing. This is a monumental amount of time for something that should not be considered so highly. The only thing that standardized tests determine is which students are good at taking tests, which causes damaging effects and anxiety due to immense pressure. Standardized testing can only evaluate some level of knowledge of math, science, and english. Taking these tests does not evaluate creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, or artistic ability. Further, they cannot evaluate any other knowledge areas that can’t be graded on a scoring sheet with bubbles and a pencil. In fact, several studies have found that GPA is a much stronger predictor of student success. It shows a more consistent profile of the learner, and there are more than just assessments that go into these grades.
It is important that a learner is so much more than whether they choose A or B. They are complex people with unique strengths and skills. Teacher efforts will be far better spent teaching to help their students learn rather than to test. Each student has their own interests and curiosities that should not be bogged down by a school’s need to perform well, or a teacher’s fear that they will lose their job if they don’t teach students to memorize strictly what’s on the test. When it comes to education, sacrificing creativity to appease government officials and huge testing corporations—who have no experience of what it is actually like to teach in a school—is not a sacrifice we should be willing to make. It is time to look at the research and realize we need to make significant, systematic changes in the way we view assessment in education. In the end, we’re only failing the ones we designed this to support: the students.